Featured image: Alfred Jacob Miller, watercolour, “Approaching Buffalo,” (1867). Library and Archives Canada [LAC] Mikan no. 2833895.
In 1845 G.A. Belcourt accompanied the fall hunt for six weeks. Apparently several descriptions of his observations were subsequently published, including:
- a letter, quoted in Association de la propagation de la foi (Diocèse de Québec), Rapport sur les Missions du Diocèse de Québec et autres Missions qui en ont ci-devant fait partie, no. 7 (Québec: des Ateliers de J.T. Brousseau, Juillet 1847);
- a letter to Major S. Woods (25 November 1845), published as Pembina Settlement. Letter from the secretary of war transmitting the report of Major Woods relative to his expedition to the Pembina settlement, and the condition of affairs on the north-western frontier of the territory of Minnesota, March 9, 1850, Congressional Documents 31st Congress, 1st Session [3 December 1849–30 September 1850], House Doc. 51, 44–52;
- an ‘amplified the description’ from a letter to Bishop Loras of Dubuque, 16 February 1850, printed in Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, vol. 12, no. 73 (July 1851);
- “Sport of Buffalo-hunting on the Open Plains of Pembina. By Hon. H. H. Sibley, M.C.,” Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected and prepared under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs per act of Congress of March 3rd 1847, part 4, ed. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854)—which seems to be a reprint of Major Wood’s version; and
- a version based on a French-language original as quoted in G.A. Belcourt, trans. J.A. Burgesse, “Buffalo Hunt,” Beaver (December 1944), 13-17, the source described as a letter to “M.C” (25 November 1845)—which would seem to suggest that the letter to Major Woods was the original French-language account—but that was “published at Quebec in 1847 as part of a report on missions,” which perhaps should not be a reference to Woods’ letter.
The last two of the versions listed are transcribed below for comparison [note, however, that the accompanying illustrations are not strictly contemporary].
“Sport of Buffalo-hunting on the Open Plains of Pembina. By Hon. H. H. Sibley, M.C.,” Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected and prepared under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs per act of Congress of March 3rd 1847, part 4, ed. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854):
[p. 94:] “There is too much reason to fear that the buffalo, or American bison, which is the subject of this paper, will soon become extinct as a denizen of the wilds of the North American Continent. …”
[p. 101–110:] “In the northern part of Minnesota, on both sides of the line dividing the United States from the British possessions, there is to be found a large population, consisting mostly of mixed bloods. These men possess, in an eminent degree, the physical energy, and powers of endurance of the white man, combined with the activity, subtlety, and skill in hunting, of the Indian, They are fine horsemen, and remarkably dexterous in the chase of the buffalo. Half farmer and half hunters, they till the ground, and raise fine crops of wheat and other cereals, while semi-annually they repair to the buffalo region to procure meat, which they cure in diverse ways, and dispose of to our own citizens and to the Hudson [sic] Bay Company for the supply of their remote inland trading-posts. Being numerous and well supplied with horses, oxen, and carts, the number of buffalos annually slaughtered by them is astounding. I shall conclude this article with an interesting description of the peculiar habits and mode of hunting of these people, furnished by the Rev. Mr. Belcourt, a Catholic priest residing among them in January, 1851. From my own personal acquaintance with many of the half-breeds, as well as with Mr. Belcourt himself, who is justly esteemed as a gentleman of integrity and veracity, I can confidently endorse the general correctness of his statements, as contained in the following pages.
I can now state to you understandingly the mode of the buffalo hunt practiced by the people of our country, having accompanied them in one of their excursions. I should first remark, that the autumnal hunt engages the attention of comparatively few men, for the following reasons. A portion of the half-breeds, who have not the means of passing the winter in the settlements, spread over that part of the country where they can subsist themselves and families during the cold weather by the chase of the elk, moose, and the bear: others, hoping to reap more profit by trapping the fur-bearing animals, seek the haunts of the marten, the fisher, the otter, and the beaver, in the wooded region and along water-courses and lakes; so that ordinarily not more than one-third assemble for the fall hunt of the buffalo.
The returns of the previous summer expedition had shown but a ‘beggarly account of empty boxes.’ After a long march during the warm weather, the half-breeds had made their appearance with carts less than one-quarter laden, and even this scanty supply of meat was in bad order. This was as much owing to the want of union and method on the part of the hunters themselves, as to the scarcity of the buffalo. Now that it was understood that they were to be accompanied by a priest, a general feeling of confidence was restored, as it was expected that he would act as umpire, if difficulties should occur, and do all in his power to promote harmony in the camp. Preparations for the campaign were, accordingly, made at St. Boniface and the White Horse Plains, and they took up the line of march, one after the other, until the ninth of September, when I myself brought up the rear. The place of rendezvous was designated at a spot on the banks of the Pembina river, not at the site of the old establishment, but about a day’s journey above it, I arrived at the point indicated on the third day after my departure from the settlement.
From the summit of the hill, which reared its crest about two hundred feet above the surface of the river, I discovered the camp, which was composed of about sixty lodges. These were pitched in the open prairie, and near them grazed tranquilly several hundred head of horses and oxen. In the distance, the younger hunters, having followed the sinuosities of the stream, were returning laden with wild fowl; while in an opposite direction, children could be seen bending under the weight of fish, of which the river furnished a great abundance. Carts traversed the plain on all sides, with fire-wood, spare axles, lodge-poles, and materials for the construction of cart-bodies and lattice-work, whereupon to dry the meat. It became necessary to provide a full supply of all these articles, as we were about to launch forth into an immense prairie, without a single tree to serve as a landmark to the voyageurs.
On the fourteenth we raised the camp and ascended the opposite hill. From thence we viewed, like the ocean in its vastness, that succession of hill and valley, of constantly-occurring uniformity, which extended to the Missouri river; nay, I might say to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Here it was necessary to determine the precise direction to be taken. As the Red river hunters had not joined us, we judged it proper not longer to follow the mountain on that side, lest we should do them an injury by raising the buffalo [sic: italics in source] before them on the route we expected them to take. On the other hand, we were aware that a certain number of half-breeds had gone to establish their winter quarters near the end of the Turtle mountain, and on Moose river; consequently we could hope for no success if we followed their trail. It was decided at length that we should pursue a middle course; first south of east, until a certain distance had been accomplished, and then change to south-west, so as to visit Thicket lake, Hole Mound, Devil’s lake, the Little Fork of the Cheyenne, Basswood lake, and the Dog’s lodge. The decision having been publicly announced and the guides appointed, we proceeded on our way. The carts, to the number of two hundred and thirteen, were ranged in three lines, one line being drawn by oxen and the other two by horses. These formed a much longer train than one would imagine, if not aware that to each vehicle lodge-poles, fifteen or eighteen feet in length, were attached.
And now the horsemen disperse in every direction, to wend their way only at night to the point beforehand indicated as the camping-ground. Like veteran mariners, these children of the prairie march during the entire day over hill and dale, offering to the eye of a stranger no distinctive features whereby to shape his course, and yet make their way unerringly, even in the darkness of night, to the camp.
At an early hour we halted and arranged matters for passing the night, awaiting meanwhile the report of the scouts with much impatience. The first who appeared was my own hunter. He had seen no buffalo, but he brought back with him two cranes, one of which measured eight feet and three inches between the extremities of the wings. This bird, the flesh of which is not pleasant to the taste, abounds in that part of the country, its food being principally roots, which it digs up with its beak. When wounded it becomes a dangerous antagonist, for raising itself to its full height, it turns upon the hunter and strives to pluck out his eyes. It has happened that young savages have had their bowels pierced and lacerated by this furious bird.
About sundown all the hunters had come in with the exception of two, and fresh signs of buffalo had been seen. The following day the number of look-outs was augmented. About ten in the morning, the two young men who had been so long absent, joined us laden with fresh meat, and when the scouts returned in the evening, that article was extremely abundant. But the flesh of the bulls is no delicacy, nor is it easy of digestion; however, I was served to the choicest part, viz., the tongue; ‘for,’ it was remarked to me, ‘you are not accustomed to eat of this meat, and if you partake of any other portion, you may be seized with the buffalo sickness,’—mal de boeuf. This ailment, so far as I could divine, is nothing more or less than indigestion. The flesh has the consistency of leather, and as the hunters, flushed with health, are blessed with a fierce appetite, they do not sufficiently masticate this tough food, and often suffer in consequence.
At length we had good reason to believe that on the morrow we should fall in with a herd of cows. I accordingly made preparations in the morning for joining the hunters, who were in high glee at the brilliant prospects, and made the prairie to resound with their boisterous mirth. We hardly rode along for half an hour, when we discovered a herd of bulls. They were distinguished as such from the fact that they do not huddle together in the herd as do the females. We approached them at a slow gait, and they fed tranquilly until we arrived within three or four hundred yards. We then reduced the pace of our horses to a walk, knowing that, by so doing, the buffalo would not take to flight until we were very near them. Still, not being over-anxious to receive a visit from us, they began to manifest signs of ill-humor. Some threw dust in the air with their fore-feet, others rolled upon the ground, and then, with the agility of a hare, sprang up in an instant. Others again, with more gravity of deportment, looked at us fixedly, uttering occasionally, a low bellow; the sudden jerk of the tail alone, giving assurance that our presence was no more acceptable to them than to their companions.
When the signal is given we spur our horses towards them, and before us fly with rapidity, the thick and heavy masses. Several are overthrown at the first discharge; others, feeling themselves mortally wounded, stop suddenly, and tear up the earth in their fury, or strike it, like rams, with their fore-feet. Under the shaggy tufts of hair, their eyes sparkle with rage, and warn the most intrepid of the hunters to keep at a respectful distance.
This chase, which lasted but a quarter of an hour, was scarcely brought to a close, when the cloud of dust was perceived rising from the top of a hill in the distance. I had no time to ask the cause of this, before each man sprang to his saddle, crying out, cow cows! (la vache! la vache!) Although a dozen huge bulls lay dead upon the ground, not even a tongue was taken.
In a very short time we reached the eminence, where I expected we would find ourselves in close proximity to the animals which had been announced with so much assurance, but, to my surprise, I could perceive none. At length, I was made to remark, several miles away, certain objects, which, as there was a mirage, appeared to me to be trees, but even at that distance the keen eyes of the hunters recognized them to be, not trees, nor even bulls, but cows.
The men here all assembled to the number of fifty-five. Even the horses seemed to partake of the joy and ardor of their masters. To moderate the fierceness of the steed was difficult, to restrain that of the hunter was much more so. But to ensure success, we must advance together, quietly and warily, until within two gun-shots of the herd. If, on the contrary, as is the case when the half-breeds have no acknowledged leader, those possessed of fleet horses advance at full speed, leaving to the others no chance to secure a portion of the prey, there arise discord, quarrels, hatred, and all their train of evils.
The instinct of the buffalo causes them to huddle closely together when pursued. The males, if separated from the cows, then rejoin them; the latter, however, being the swiftest, always keeping in the front ranks. To reach them, therefore, it becomes necessary to pierce the dense the dense phalanx of bulls, which is a dangerous experiment. During the hunt of the previous summer, an Indian, thrown headlong from his horse, which had been overturned by a bull, was made the sport of the latter for several minutes, being tossed into the air repeatedly, and each time received, bleeding and lacerated, upon the sharp horns of the infuriated beast. To give an idea of the monstrous strength of these animals, it is sufficient to state, that one of them in traversing the line of carts, struck a vehicle to which a horse was attached, and which was laden at the time with more than a thousand pounds’ weight, and hurled it over and over three or four times.
Another great danger to which the hunter is exposed, is that of finding himself in the direction of the bulls, which are sped heedlessly on every side, and whistle in a frightful manner, while the whirlwinds of dust prevent any object being seen at a distance of ten yards. Lately, in a chase, one of the men received a bullet in his belly, but, luckily, the wound did not prove to be mortal. On another occasion, the ball traversed the coat, shirt, and flesh of a hunter, and was only arrested by the breast-bone. Providentially, no such accidents occurred to turn our excursion into one of mourning. It can hardly be supposed, that, in view of so many dangers, the horseman can divest himself entirely of a certain apprehension, sufficiently vivid, however, to impress itself upon his countenance.
The rapidity with which the half-breeds charge their guns is astonishing, it not being an uncommon occurrence for one of them to shoot down three buffaloes in the space of an acre (arpent). Their manner of loading is, not to use wadding after their first shot is discharged. They prime their pieces, then pour powder into the muzzle from the horn, the bullet being taken from the mouth and slipped down on top of the powder, the saliva causes it to adhere sufficiently long for their purpose. The horse, meanwhile, is abandoned to his own guidance, but so admirably are these animals trained, that the mere motion of the body of the master to one side or the other, is instantly understood and obeyed.
After the first day’s course, which lasted not more than half an hour, I counted one hundred and sixty-nine cows lying dead upon the plain. The next day one hundred and seventy-seven were killed. The third day, although many of the hunters chose to repose themselves, one hundred and fourteen were destroyed; and on the fourth one hundred and sixty-eight, making, altogether, six hundred and twenty-eight buffalo. It would be supposed that these would suffice for the loading of two hundred and thirteen carts; but such was not the case, many more being needed to complete it. It is true that much of the meat is squandered and lost on account of the careless manner of curing it.
The hunt of the day being ended, the quarry is placed upon its knees, and the hind legs are stretched out to their full length, so that the animal is sustained principally upon its belly. The small hump is first taken out, This is a protuberance of flesh about the neck, weighing about three pounds, and is attached to the large hump. The skin is now divided along the back-bone, and is loosened, after which, the operation of slicing and curing is commenced, of which the following are the details, with the technical words used:—
- Les depouilles—are taken from each side of the animal, from shoulder to the haunches. They are separated from the flesh underneath by a cartilaginous membrane, or thin skin.
- Les filets—are the great muscles, covered with flesh, which connect the shoulder-blades and haunches.
- Les bricoles—two strips of fat, which run from the shoulder to below the neck.
- Les petits filets de cou—small muscles which spring from a point near the end of the gros filets.
- Le dessur de croupe—which begins above the flanks.
- Les deux epaules—the shouders.
- Les dessous d’epaule—strips of flesh between the sides of the breast-bone and shoulders.
- Lepis—the flat part surrounding and containing the udder.
- Le ventre—the belly.
- La panse—the tripe, esteemed by the half-breeds as a great delicacy.
- La grosse bosse—the large hump which has its greatest elevation between the shoulder-blades. It is a mass of flesh covering thin wide bones, which are inclined backwards, like the dorsal fin of a fish. The flesh has a delicious flavor.
- Le gras—the tallow inside the animal.
- Les plats cotes—the ribs.
- La croupe—the rump.
- Le brochet—the breast-bone.
- La langue—the tongue.
What remains is left for the wolves. Cutting up is a labor which brings the sweat from the hunter, but our people display a surprising rapidity and adroitness in performing it. Sometimes, in ten hours’ time, as many buffalo have been killed and dissected by one man and his family. The profuse perspiration affects them very much, causing inordinate thirst, so that they take the precaution to supply themselves with a keg of water, which is transported on the cart that goes to the meat [sic: italics in source]. When this is neglected, the suffering is almost intolerable, and the means taken in some measure to assuage thirst, is to chew leaves, or even the cartilaginous portion of the nostril of the slain buffalo, If the hunter becomes hungry, he devours the kidneys, which are cooked after fashion, by immersion in the gall-bladder, or eaten raw.
The meat, when taken to the camp, is cut by the women into long thin strips about a quarter of an inch thick, which are hung upon the lattice-work, prepared for that purpose, to dry. This lattice-work is formed of small pieces of wood placed horizontally, transversely, and equi-distant from each other, not unlike an immense gridiron, and is supported by wooden uprights (trepieds) [sic: not italicized in source]. In a few days the meat is thoroughly desiccated, when it is bent into proper lengths, and tied in bundles of sixty or seventy pounds weight. This is called dried meat (viande seche) [sic: not italicized in source]. Other portions which are destined to be made into pimikehigan, or pemican, are exposed to an ardent heat, and thus become brittle, and easily reducible to small particles by the use of a flail; the buffalo-hide answering the purpose of a threshing-floor. The fat, or tallow, being cut up and melted in large kettles of sheet-iron, is poured upon this pounded meat, and the whole mass is worked together with shovels, until it is well amalgamated, when it is pressed, while still warm, into bags made of buffalo-skin, which are strongly sewed up, and the mixture gradually cools and becomes almost as hard as a rock. If the fat used in this process is that taken from the parts containing the udder, the meat is called fine pemican. In some cases, dried fruits, such as the prairie-pear and cherry, are intermixed, which forms what is called seed pemican. The lovers of good eating judge the first described to be very palatable; the second, better; the third excellent. A taurean or pemican weighs from one hundred to one hundred and ten pounds. Some idea may be formed of the immense destruction of buffalo by these people, when it is stated that a whole cow yields one half a bag of pemican, and three-fourths of a bundle of dried meat; so that the most economical calculate that from eight to ten cows are required for the load of a single vehicle.
To make the hide into parchment (so called), it is stretched on a frame, and then scraped on the inside with a sharpened bone, and on the outside with a small but sharp-curved iron, proper to remove the hair. This is considered, likewise, the appropriate labor of the women. The men break the bones; which are boiled in water to extract the marrow, to be used for frying, and other culinary purposes. The oil is then poured into the bladder of the animal, which contains, when filled, about twelve pounds; being the yield of the marrow-bones of two buffaloes.
In addition to the buffalo, the quadrupeds found in the prairie are the elk, the antelope, the deer, the small prairie dog, similar to the fox, the badger, the hare (which differs from that found in the woods, being larger and swifter than the latter), the muskrat (remarkable for its fecundity), the wolf (in large numbers, whose interminable howlings during the hours of darkness, prevent those unaccustomed to the wild life of the plains from sleeping), and lastly, the grizzly bear, of which one was seen at Bass-Wood Lake, but escaped from its pursuers.
While we coasted along the shore of Devil’s Lake, a sheet of water about ten miles long, and two in width, some of the horsemen went off in pursuit of a small herd of cows. One of them fell from his saddle, and was unable to overtake his horse; which continued the chase as if he, of himself, could accomplish great things—so much do these animals become imbued with a passion for this sport!
On another occasion, a half-breed left his favorite steed at the camp, to enable him to recruit his strength; enjoining his wife the necessity of properly securing the animal, which was not done, not relishing the idea of being left behind, he started after us, and soon was alongside; and thus he continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to the earth. The chase ended, he came neighing to his master, whom he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles. When the camp is changed, the lodges are placed in positions so different that the hunter, on his return, is not infrequently obliged to search a considerable time before he finds his own domicile. Not so with his horse; which, although he may have been left at a considerable distance, comes at a given hour, and without manifesting any signs of uncertainty, marches straight to the proper habitation, and striking the skin door with his fore-foot, demands the measure of barley as the usual and well-earned price of his day’s labor.
On the 25th we encamped on the Cheyenne, the longest tributary of the Red River of the North. We had here in full view immense herds of buffalo, I myself having counted two hundred and twenty in the area of a single square acre of ground. Both sides of the river were covered with them, as far as the eye could reach. Judge, then, if possible, of the quantity of game upon these prairies. How deplorable that the Hand which distributes daily food from this source to so many people, should not even be known or recognized by the major part of them! For it should be borne in mind that the Christian half-breeds are not to be compared in number with the many nations of savages whose nourishment is constantly and exclusively drawn from the products of the chase.
As I almost invariably accompanied the horsemen in their excursions from the camp, I was an eye-witness to a most perilous scene in which they were the actors. They were in close pursuit of a large herd of cows, and at the height of speed, when they arrived pêle mêle with the buffalo on the summit of a precipice lined with rocks above and below, man, horse, and chase, falling and rolling over each other in such confusion, that it became difficult to conceive how any escaped instant death, either from the effects of the fall itself, or by being crushed by the ponderous masses. Strange as it may appear, only one man remained senseless upon the ground, and he soon recovered; a couple of horses arose limping, and a few cows had one or more of their legs broken. The hunters who had been dismounted in this frightful melee, arose with yells and shouts, to reassure their companions, regained their saddles, and resumed the pursuit, making their whips to crack, so as to recover their lost ground; for it may well be believed that the herd had not meanwhile awaited their convenience, So soon as I was satisfied that no serious accident had occurred, I spurred forward my steed, and discharged my gun at a cow, which immediately subsided. I arrested my career, although strongly tempted to proceed, for I felt that I would have no excuse in further exposing myself to peril and to blame.
One of the half-breeds, in returning from the chase, followed the windings of the stream, and observed signs of beaver along its banks. The day following he caught five of these amphibia in his steel traps. I was led by curiosity to go and examine the dam which they had constructed, and most admirable was the workmanship. Although no wood was to be found save willows of the size of one’s finger, yet the dam was so solidly constructed of this apparently frail material, that it served as a bridge for the buffalo. I myself crossed the stream upon it with my horse.
The supply of firewood which had been brought from Pembina being entirely consumed, our people had to use the dung of buffalo for fuel. This, when dry, produces an ardent but transient flame, sufficient for cooking our daily food; but it evolves as smoke which, to the nasal organs of a stranger, is far from being agreeable. The want of wood interfered much with the curing of the meat, the sun not having sufficient power to dry it. It became necessary, therefore, to change our locality, and shape our course to the islands of timber in the vicinity of Basswood lake. This spot is most picturesque, and the views from it varied and beautiful. The lake, which is in a basin surrounded with hills, is extremely salt, but the springs which flow into it afford an abundance of pure fresh water. The slopes of the surrounding eminences are well furnished with oak, ash, and bass-wood. From the top of the hills we discover at no great distance the Dog’s Lodge, a mound which serves as a look-out place for the Sioux Indians when engaged in war. In another direction are the heights called Les Grands Coteaux, which extend to and beyond the Missouri, on a parallel line with the Stony Mountains.
Arrived at this point on the second of October, we remained until the sixteenth, being during that time constantly in the midst of the buffalo. On the tenth we had a heavy fall of snow, when the mercury fell to 5º [Réaumur] below zero, where it continued for two days, and the lake was frozen over. Six days after, the weather had so much moderated that no snow was left upon the ground. The cold had by no means retarded our labors. On the contrary, each one, fearing a premature winter, worked day and night, the more indolent usually being now the most untiring, as they had good reason to apprehend that they would be left behind by their more industrious companions.
I cannot close my remarks relative to the buffalo without giving you a just idea of their size and conformation. As is the case with others of the animal creation, the male is considerably larger than the female. The horns of the bull scarcely emerge from the dense mass of hair which covers a part of the head and neck, and gives them a startling appearance; while the cow, not being provided with such a profusion of hair, her jutting and more curved horns make her distinguishable from her mate at quite a distance. I measured a bull of middle size, and found that he was eight feet nine inches in girth, nine feet two inches long, twenty inches from the nose to the top of the head, length of tail one foot three inches, and twenty inches between the eyes. The longest rib in the rump, with an inclination of twenty degrees on the back-bone, was twenty inches long.
Although the summer hunt is the most favorable for catching and domesticating the calves, I was smitten with the desire to secure one. At my request, a hunter pursued and lassoed a youngster, but it died five or six days after of fatigue, as was asserted; but in my opinion its death was caused by ennui, as it refused nourishment and appeared to pine away. In the spring the calves are easily weaned, and when trained to labor became quite useful. One farmer, who had broken a bull to the plough, performed the whole work of the field with his aid alone.
Finally, on the sixteenth of October we resumed our march homewards, having upon our carts the proceeds of 1776 cows, which formed 228 pemican bags, 1213 bales of dried meat, 166 boskoyas or sacks of tallow, each weighing 200 pounds, and 556 bladders of marrow of twelve pounds each. The value of these articles was about £1700, from which deducting £200 for the actual expenses of the trip and the wages of certain hired men, there remained £1500 to compensate fifty-five hunters and their families for two months labor, computing from the day of our departure to that of our return.”
G.A. Belcourt, trans. J.A. Burgesse, “Buffalo Hunt,” Beaver (December 1944), 13-17:
“St. Paul, November 25th, 1845
My dear friend, I can now speak with some knowledge of the manner in which the buffalo is hunted in this country, having had the opportunity of taking part in one of these expeditions. However before beginning, I must explain that the fall hunt attracts the fewest hunters, and for the following reasons. Some of the Halfbreeds cannot afford to winter in the settlement so that, during the cold season, they go off into the interior where they live on deer, moose, and bear. Others keep to the rivers and lakes in order to hunt fur bearers as well as buffalo. The result is that but a third of our men are available for the [organized] hunt.
Last summer’s hunt was pitiful, for after having suffered the rigours of a long march under a burning sun, all the men returned with but a quarter of their accustomed loads. This was due more to a lack of unity among them than to the scarcity of game. Also, many of them had quite lost all ambition. However, their spirits revived as soon as word got around that a priest was to accompany them [on the next excursion]. At St. Boniface and White Horse Plains preparations were pushed to completion with renewed vigour and, one after the other, the hunters set out until, finally on November 9th, I departed in my turn. The rallying point was Pembina—not the old post, but another about a day’s march further on. Here I arrived on the third day after leaving. From the summit of a hill, 200 feet above the river, I looked down upon our camp of about 60 lodges. There it lay, in the very centre of the prairies across which wound our waggon train of some 300 horses and over a hundred oxen. Beyond were the younger hunters, returning along the river bank to camp, loaded with game. Closer in, a group of children could be seen coming home from their fishing. Carts wove a criss-cross pattern throughout the camp as they transported, thither and yon, such things as fire-wood, spare axels, lodge poles, drying frames and hide-stretchers. All these articles were important parts of our equipment, for we were leaving behind us the woodlands and heading into the boundless prairie.
On the 14th we struck camp and scaled the heights which lay before us, under a hot sun. From the top, we had a fine view of these endless prairies as they rolled on, wave upon wave, like a mighty ocean, as far as the Missouri; or even, I dare say, to the Rocky Mountains.
The time had now come when we must make up our minds as to what direction we should next take. Seeing that the hunters from Red River had not joined us, we felt that we ought not to skirt the mountains in that direction lest we cause them trouble by beating up the buffalo in front of them. On the other hand, it was known that a number of Halfbreeds were wintering in the Turtle and Souris Rivers country and, consequently, we could not hope for any great hunting in that neighbourhood. We decided, therefore, to take a middle course and work down to the SSE, changing later to SSW, This route would bring us via Lax des Branches Buttes des Trous, Devil’s Lake, the Little Forks of the Sheyenne, Lac du Bois Blanc and Maison du Chien. Public notice was given of our intention, the guides were appointed, and off we went set.
Our 213 carts, some of which were hauled by horses and others by oxen, were formed into three columns, and each of these columns was much longer than would be supposed by one who did not know that each one of them had a number of fifteen or eighteen foot poles tied on top of it.
In the meantime, the mounted members of our band had scattered off into the interior and were lost to view until evening when they would rejoin us at a previously agreed upon camping place. As does an experienced navigator upon the ocean, these children of the prairies can travel all day long through hills and vales which an unaccustomed eye cannot distinguish one from the other, and yet arrive in the evening, often enough after darkness has fallen, at the appointed rendez-vous.
We camped early and awaited the reports of the scouts in eager anticipation. The first to appear was my own huntsman. He had seen no buffalo but, in revenge, he had shot down a coupe of cranes, one of which measured eight feet three inches between the wing tips. These birds feed on roots which they dig up with their beaks. When they are wounded they are redoubtable adversaries. Raising their heads to about the height of a man, they chase after the hunter and attempt to gouge out his eyes. Indian children have been known to have been disembowelled [sic] by these ferocious birds.
When night fell all save two of the scouts had returned and had reported fresh tracks. Next day these good reports were more numerous and, about ten o’clock, the two young men who had spent the night on the prairies arrived with a load of fresh meat. Towards evening this article was quite plentiful. But the meat of the bull buffalo is not easy to digest, The tongue, which is the best morsel, was served to me for, as they told me, ‘you are not accustomed to this meat and would catch mal de boeuf if you ate any other part.’ As can be imagined, mal de boeuf is nothing but indigestion. This meat seems to have the consistency of boot-leather and the hunters, glowing as they are with health, do not give themselves the trouble of masticating it. Thus they are often its dupes. However, we expected to catch up with the cows next day.
I joined the hunters who were giving vent to their exuberance in a very noisy manner, and we had not ridden very far before we caught sight of a herd of bulls. They can be recognized, quite easily, from a distance because of their habit of keeping further apart, one from another, than do cows. We approached at a brisk trot to within seven or eight arpents while they continue to graze peaceably. Then we pulled up our horses to a walking pace, for they do not stampede until the very last minute when approached quietly.
Nevertheless, apparently not very pleased to see us, they showed some signs of ill humour. Some stamped their hooves, tossing up clouds of dust. Others rolled on the ground like horses, jumping to their feet again with all the agility of a hare. A few, apparently more conscious of their dignity, watched us fixedly and let escape, from time to time, sharp, hollow bellows. The sharp, jerky twitching of their tails left no doubts that they found our presence just as disagreeable as did their fellows.
The signal is given! We whip up our charges and the dense, heavy mass before us breaks and flees with surprising speed and lightness. Several buffalo are bowled over by the first shots. Others, mortally wounded and furious, stand at bay, tearing up the ground with their horns or stamping their hooves like rams. From beneath their tight, tangled poll locks their eyes are seen to sparkle with rage, bidding the most intrepid of hunters to keep his distance.
This chase, which lasted a scant half hour, was scarcely over when we perceived a cloud of dust rising from beyond a small hill, a few miles away, I had hardly time to demand what this could mean before each man leaped into his saddle and galloped off, crying, ‘The cows! The cows!’ They did not even wait to cut out the tongues of the dozen or so big bulls which lay dead upon the prairie. Soon all the horsemen had gained the heights from which had come the signal.
I had hoped that I would be close to this scene, which had been announced with so much assurance, when I reached the spot. What was not my surprise when, no matter what direction I turned my gaze, nothing could be seen! Presently, a number of dots, which appeared to be trees, were pointed out to me. Our hunters had recognized them to be not trees, nor bulls, but cows.
The hunters now gathered at this point numbered fifty-five and their horses seemed to share the joy and ardour of their riders. It was difficult to curb the steed, but more so to curb the master. The secret of a successful buffalo hunt is to approach quietly to within two gunshots’ distance of the prey. If, as happens often enough when there is no one around to take charge, the better horses are given free rein, the weaker are unable to overtake the quarry. Discord, quarrels, bad feeling and all their consequences are the result.
Instinct causes the buffalo to mass together when attacked. The bulls, which are usually to be found at some little distance from the cows, draw together first and move off before the pursuit. As they approach, the cows these, in their turn, mass together and flee before the males, but at a more rapid pace. Thus, in order to overtake the cows, one must thrust through a solid phalange of bulls—a most dangerous undertaking. Let me illustrate: Last year one of the Indians, who had been knocked over by a buffalo, was tossed and gored for over a quarter of an hour by the infuriated animal. Without slackening its mad career, the brute tossed and re-tossed the unlucky hunter fifteen or twenty feet into the air, catching him each time on its horns. Some idea of the strength of the animals may be obtained from the fact that one of them, when dashing through a line of carts, caught one with its horns and sent it rolling over for two or three turns. These carts, hauled by a horse, usually carry a load of more than a thousand pounds
Another equally serious danger to be reckoned with is that occasioned by stray bullets. From every direction they whistle through the clouds of dust in a most disconcerting manner. Recently, a fellow had his stomach pierced by a stray shot in the midst of a chase. By good fortune the wound was not fatal. On another occasion a ball struck a hunter and traversed his coat, shirt and skin, halting only when it brought up against his breast bone. We were lucky in that no serious accidents saddened our expedition. It is not surprising, therefore, that a hunter cannot help some apprehension from reflecting itself in his expression at such times.
The speed at which the guns are discharged is truly astonishing, It is not at all rare to see three buffalo knocked over by a single hunter within the space of one arpent. Some of them manage to discharge their pieces as many as five times during the course of a chase. Here is how they load: The first shot, only, is wadded down. The other balls are carried in the mouth so that they can prime their guns, pour in a charge of powder, and then spit the shot into the barrel. Saliva causes it to adhere to the powder at the bottom. In the meantime, the steed is abandoned to its own devices, but so well is it trained that the rider has but to lean to one side of the saddle or the other to make it understand his wishes which are obeyed immediately.
When the first chase was all over, and it lasted about half an hour, I counted 169 cows killed. We camped close by. Next day, 177 more were killed. On the third day a number of our riders rested up, but those who did go out brought back 114 cows to camp. On the fourth day a further 168 were brought down, making a total of 628. It might be thought that, by this time, we must have obtained enough with which to load our 213 carts. However, we required all of them, for much meat is lost by the manner in which the carcasses are dressed.
At the close of a chase, the hunter props up the dead buffalo on its knees. Then he spreads out the hind legs so that the animal is supported on its belly. To begin with, the petite bosse is taken off. This is a small hump, weighing about three pounds, which is found above the neck where it is attached to the main hump. Next, the hide is slit down the back and removed completely. Butchering follows.
The details of the latter operation are as follows:
- Dépouilles, two layers of flesh along the ribs, extending from shoulder to rump. They are separated by a thin skin or cartilage from another layer of meat which lies below them.
- Filets, sinewy muscles which connect the shoulder blades to the haunches.
- Bricoles, two bands of fat which descend from over the shoulders to the under part of the neck.
- Petites filets de cou, small sinewy muscles found near the extremities of the filets.
- Dessus de crous, parts immediately above the flanks.
- Epaules, the shoulders.
- Dessous d’épaules, the layers of flesh lying between ribs and shoulders.
- Pis, fatty layer extending under the belly and up the flanks. The udder is included in it.
- Ventre, muscular band of flesh which supports the intestines and extends under the belly from ribs on one side to ribs on opposite side.
- Panse, the stomach, which is considered by the half-breeds to be something of a delicacy.
- Grosse bosse, the hump, which is highest immediately between the shoulder blades. It is composed of a number of broad, thin bones, inclined to the rear and very similar in conformation to the spines on a fish bone. This morsel has a delicious taste.
- Gras or Suif, the suet from the interior of the carcass.
- Plats-côtes, or cutlets.
- Croupe, the rump.
- Brochet, meat which covers the stomach.
- Langue, the tongue.
All else is left to the wolves.
To dress and butcher one of these animals is quite an arduous task, but our folk go to it with a will and skill truly astonishing. Some of them have been known to kill and dress ten buffalo, without any assistance, in less than ten hours. Since the heat tries them sorely, they are careful to bring a small keg of water along with the ‘meat carts,’ as we call those wagons which come out to the hunting grounds in order to transport the meat back to camp. Did they not take this precaution they would suffer horribly from thirst. In order to allay this torment, to some extent, they are accustomed to chew the raw cartilages found in the nostrils of the buffalo. When hungry they eat the kidneys, after first having pickled them in the animal’s gall. I am told some of them do not even take this trouble and swallow the kidneys raw.
The meat is cut up by the women, who work it between their palms into long strips about a quarter inch think, which they hang upon a sort of frame as if they were so many pieces of laundry. The frames consist of a number of horizontal rows of wooden slats supported on tripods. After two or three days upon the frames, the meat is quite dried. It is then rolled up and the choicer pieces are packed into bundles weighing sixty or seventy pounds each. The rest, after first being dried to a crisp over a hot fire, is laid out upon a hide and pounded into a powder. Melted fat is poured on the meat and the whole worked up with shovels into a uniform mass. Afterwards this mixture is packed into raw-hide sacks, from which no one has even troubled to remove the hair. These sacks are known as taureaux (bulls) or pemmicans. When the fat used is taken from the udder, they are called taureaux fins (fine bulls). Sometimes dried fruits, such as pears and cherries, are included in the mixture, and sacks so treated are called taureaux à grains (berry bulls). According to the local gastronomes, the first kind is good, the second better, and the third the very best. In order to illustrate by how much this process reduces the weight of the meat, I would mention that a cow buffalo furnishes only sufficient pemmican for half a taureaux and three-quarters of a bundle of jerked meat. The most experienced hunters reckon that eight or ten cows are required to make up a cart load.
Parchment is obtained from the hides by drying them on stretchers and scraping the inner sides with a sharpened bone. the hair is removed with a small sharp tool especially intended for this purpose. This, also, is the work of the women. The men crack and boil the bones so as to extract the marrow, which is in much demand for frying. It is stored in the animals’ bladders, and the marrow from two cows is needed to fill a bladder, weighing about twelve pounds.
On the 25th we encamped at the Sheyenne River, the longest branch of the Red, and here we encountered an immense herd of cow buffalo. In the space of about a square arpent (seven and a half acres) I counted 220 animals and the country all around, on both sides of the river, was similarly covered as far as the eye could see. One can judge from this, if indeed such a thing is at all possible, what is the wealth of these prairies. Is it not deplorable that He who furnishes their daily bread to so many tribes should not yet be recognized by them? The Christian Halfbreeds are few, as compared to the many other bands who depend on hunting for their subsistence.
As I accompanied the hunters, almost always, when they left camp to hunt, I witnessed a rather perilous situation in which some of them found themselves during the course of the first chase in this neighbourhood. Having dashed off in pursuit of a numerous herd of cows, they were in full career, in the very midst of the herd, when they arrived suddenly at the brink of a steep, rock-strewn cliff. Over they went, pell-mell—hunters, horses and buffalo—in such confusion that it is difficult to explain why some were not killed, crushed against the rocks or tramped beneath the hooves of the following horde. Only one man was knocked unconscious, and he soon recovered. A couple of horses were lamed and a few buffalo had their legs broken. The hunters who had been un-horsed jumped quickly back into their saddles, with reassuring cries, and took up the chase once more, cracking their whips with a will in an endeavour to make up for lost time. The buffalo, of course, had not waited for them. After making quite certain that no-one had been hurt badly, I continued after the hunt. I overtook the others on a level stretch of prairie where I managed to knock over a cow. Though I was tempted to continue, I contented myself with this, for I saw no point in exposing myself to further danger, or reproach.
We arrived at this camp on October 2nd and remained until the 16th. All this time the buffalo were in abundance around us. A heavy snowfall occurred on the 10th and the mercury fell to five degrees below zero (freezing) on the Réaumur scale. In consequence the lake froze solidly during the two days following. However the weather became more temperate after six days and the snow disappeared. This cold spell did not interrupt our work. On the contrary the men worked night and day, fearing they might be caught by an early winter. The laziest among them did not spare themselves lest their more diligent companions finish their loading and depart without them.
I did not leave these herds without obtaining some knowledge of the size and conformation of the animals. As in other species, the male buffalo is bigger than the female. Its horns can scarcely be seen, so hidden are they beneath the mass of hair which covers the head and part of the neck, giving the beast a most strange appearance. The cow, on the other hand, is not provided with this mane and her horns can be seen without difficulty from a distance. I measured a medium sized bull and found him to have a girth of eight feet nine inches, a length of nine feet two inches, twenty inches from muzzle to top of forehead, tail one foot three inches, and fourteen inches between the eyes. The longest bone in the hump measured twenty inches and was inclined to the rear, making an angle of twenty degrees with the back-bone.
Although calves can be captured and tamed more easily during the summer season, I wished to see what could be done during this excursion. One of the hunters ran down and captured a calf with a lassoe, but it died after five or six days. They told me that this was due to its having run too hard; but I really think that it fretted to death, for it refused to eat anything at all. In the spring the calves are tamed quite easily and are very useful when domesticated. A farmer who had broken one to the plough had no difficulty at all in doing all his ploughing with this one animal alone.
At length on October 16th, we departed, our 55 hunters having killed, and loaded on the carts, some 1776 cow buffalo. The whole, calculated at the most moderate market prices, was worth a little more than seventeen hundred pounds sterling. The expenses of the expedition and the wages of the hired men not exceeding two hundred pounds, there remained fifteen hundred pounds earned by 55 hunters in the space of less than two months, from the day of departure to date of return.
On the return journey we had to head north and a ten days’ march lay ahead of us. During all this time we could not make any fire though the thermometer registered three or four degrees below zero Réaumur, for we were short of fire-wood. The size of our loads had prevented us from bringing along any fuel.
On the 22nd, accompanied by a Halfbreed who, like myself, had two good spare horses, I pushed ahead of the party. Being at lat. 48° N, long. 99° 3ˈ W, we had to head NNE. At two in the afternoon we encountered a party of English Halfbreeds who were going out to seek fresh meat in the Lake des Roches region. From time to time, throughout the day, we saw big herds of cows and bulls. That evening we encamped, without either fire or water, in a frigid temperature. We dared not eat anything lest, in so doing, we aggravate our thirst. In short, our situation was such that we were not tempted to linger under our blankets any longer than absolutely necessary. Next morning the sunrise discovered us at Pembina River, five or six leagues from where we had slept. On the 23rd, we made camp at Rivière aux Islets de Bois and at eleven o’clock on the morning of the 24th I arrived at St. Paul, which is situated at lat. 50° N, long. 96° 40ˈ W of Greenwich.
I am, etc.
G. A. Belcourt, Missionary Priest.”